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Ben Toff on Americans’ news consumption — from ‘avoiders’ to embracers

Toff’s work raises a troubling question: How much difference does good or bad journalism make if people don’t want to read, watch or listen to it?

Assistant Professor Ben Toff
Assistant Professor Ben Toff believes that part of what drives the heavy news users is the social benefit that flows from membership in such informal communities. And those folks vote.
University of Minnesota/Lisa Miller

This is the fourth of five pieces in an occasional series, derived from recent interviews with scholars at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. 

I hope it’s not just because I’m a journalist, but it’s hard for me to picture a healthy democracy without a healthy journalistic culture. Luckily, there is probably more great journalism going on now than ever. Also more terrible journalism, false journalism, biased journalism.

But the work of Ben Toff, an assistant professor at the U of M’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, raises a troubling question: How much difference does good or bad journalism make if people don’t want to read, watch or listen to it?

One of Toff’s recent research interests has been a group he calls “news avoiders,” people who actually go out of their way to NOT pay attention, and others who don’t go out of their way, but just consume little or no news as part of their lives.

Toff is another of the U of M scholars, whose specialties and research shed some light on the health of our democracy, whom I interviewed earlier this year for a piece for the magazine of the U of M’s College of Liberal Arts. When I interviewed Toff, he was headed to Iowa to study “news avoiders” there and compare notes with colleagues studying the same phenomenon in Britain and Spain.

Extreme ‘avoiders’: 2 to 8 percent of the public

The extreme “avoiders” are a relatively small group, between 2 and 8 percent of the public, he estimates. Unsurprisingly, news avoiders are less likely to vote, and less likely able to describe their political views. Avoiders who do vote say they tend to base their vote on information they get from family members they trust, or from social media.

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He told me that another type of modern young American hardly ever reads, watches or listens to traditional new sources, but just “googles” around the internet if they want to know about something in the state, nation or world (which is a reminder of how powerful those search engines have become in the 21st-century news picture).

A much bigger group, Toff said, comprising roughly 38 percent of the U.S. public, are not strictly news avoiders but say that they don’t follow the news closely. And the reasons they give are similar to the extreme avoiders. The news is “too negative,” “frustrating,” “annoying.”

‘A community of news users’

On the flip side, to someone committed to being well informed, the current access to information is “amazing,” Toff said. Those folks tend to belong what he called a “community of news users.” (I suspect most MinnPost readers would be in this category.)

Toff believes that part of what drives the heavy news users is the social benefit that flows from membership in such informal communities. And those folks vote. It’s well established, for example, that newspaper readers vote at high rates, although newspaper readership is shrinking.

So how do these wide differences in news consumption relate to the health of a society’s democracy? I asked. Toff replied:

“If we’re fine with a smaller group of highly engaged people being the only ones that vote, that’s one thing. But if we want to live in a system where our democracy is responsive to the wide range of the public, whether they are particularly engaged, we need to worry about these trends.”

I asked Toff about what is sometimes called the “Fox-MSNBC effect,” the modern phenomenon where right-leaning viewers watch Fox, with its lineup of conservative stars led by Sean Hannity, and liberal viewers more likely tune in to analyst Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. I’ve worried that we are dividing into separate worlds, across ideological lines, where we don’t have even a basic set of facts in common. Toff convinced me that I’m exaggerating that threat. He said:

“It’s actually a small number of people who get most of their news from partisan media. Most people don’t follow much news about politics generally. Pew studies show that most people who rely on TV for news get it from their local network stations, which are much less partisan. Most people are not that political, and most of the news they consume is not political news.

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“So the concern is not about average people. The concern is more valid about the highly engaged political class. Activists, politicians, the donor groups do fall into that category. Perhaps that makes those partisan sources more influential than you might think just based on the ratings, which aren’t that high. So it’s complicated to evaluate the impact of the Fox-MSNBC phenomenon.

“But I do have concerns about whether our news environment is all that conducive to creating an electorate of people who actually hear the other side, can think through complicated political debates and issues, and understand a variety of different perspective.”